For Tunisian president Kais Saied, December has gone from bad to worse. Major setbacks began with his first-ever visit to Washington, DC, to attend the U.S.-African Leaders Summit and continued to pile up.
First, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on December 14 deferred consideration of a critically needed $1.9 billion loan package for Tunisia. Originally scheduled for December 19, the IMF’s Executive Board has postponed consideration indefinitely because Tunisia provided insufficient detail on an economic reform package.
Second, Saied’s December 14 meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken apparently did not go well. As the State Department’s video clip of the first thirteen minutes of the meeting shows, Blinken gave short introductory remarks while the Tunisian president droned on and on, with his feeble attempts at humor falling flat and his substantive comments defensive. (No one has accused Saied of being a gifted speaker.)
Third, Saied’s meeting with the Washington Post’s editorial board later the same day was a public relations disaster. The Post, a strong supporter of Tunisia and its nascent democracy following the ouster of Ben Ali, reported that Saied resorted to the timeworn tactic of autocrats blaming outsiders: “Saied blamed ‘fake news’ for widespread Western criticism of his steps to strengthen his presidential powers and denounced unidentified ‘foreign forces’ whom he said were attempting to stir up opposition to his rule.”
Events upon Saied’s return to Tunisia were even worse. Few voters bothered to vote in the December 17 parliamentary elections due to a combination of voter apathy and opposition boycott. As Zaid al-Ali (the author of Arab Constitutionalism) tweeted the next day, “turnout in Tunisia’s 2022 elections was lower than Afghanistan’s 2019 elections.” The election saw a record low rate of voter participation: either 8.8 percent (the initial reporting) or 11.2 percent (the subsequently adjusted figure, which has attracted considerable skepticism since the electoral commission is no longer independent). Neither figure suggests that Saied enjoys voter confidence or political legitimacy.
Until Saied’s July 25, 2021, power grab, Tunisia and the United States had long enjoyed friendly relations. In December 1805, Thomas Jefferson hosted the first iftar (the meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan) in the White House in honor of a visiting Tunisian envoy. During World War II, the U.S. consul in Tunisia—Hooker Doolittle—earned the gratitude and friendship of Habib Bourguiba, a leader in the Tunisian independence movement and its first president. (A street in downtown Tunis bears his name, making him the only American so honored in Tunisia.) Nearly 2,500 Americans served throughout Tunisia in the Peace Corps from 1962-1996.
The bilateral relationship flourished in the decade that followed Ben Ali’s ouster until Saied suspended parliament on July 25, 2021. Blinken decried “an alarming erosion of democratic norms” and “the suspension of constitutional governance, consolidation of executive power, and weakening of independent institutions” in his July 28, 2022 statement about the constitutional referendum in Tunisia three days earlier, and U.S. assistance levels to Tunisia have plummeted, reflecting disapproval of Saied’s actions by both the executive branch and Congress.
Given both the historically good relations between the two countries and a strong U.S. interest in seeing Tunisian democracy survive at a time of global autocratic revival (a topic I wrote about in September), what should the Biden administration do?
While Saied seems impermeable to advice, even from friends, the Biden administration should seek to shape his behavior by using its influence on the IMF Executive Board to attach conditions for not just economic but also political reform. Until Saied makes progress on restoring Tunisia’s democracy, the United States should invite members of Tunisian civil society (but not representatives of the Tunisian government) to the second Summit for Democracy, to be held March 29-30, 2023.
The State Department also needs to tighten its public statements. It was tone-deaf for Spokesman Ned Price to begin his December 18 statement by saying that the parliamentary elections were “an essential initial step toward restoring the country’s democratic trajectory.” Nothing could be further from the truth, and many Tunisians read the statement as a U.S. endorsement of Saied’s unconstitutional actions. This inaccurate interpretation of the parliamentary elections diminished the statement’s more important emphasis on the need for “inclusive and transparent reforms, including empowering an elected legislature, establishing the Constitutional Court, and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms for all Tunisians.”
Until Tunisia clearly returns to a democratic path, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) cannot proceed with its proposed $498 million compact to, inter alia, “make trade with Tunisia easier and less expensive by investing in the management, expansion, and digitization of the Port of Rades.” This is exactly the type of assistance Tunisia needs, because foreign trade will boost employment. The U.S. government should continue to keep the MCC compact on the table as an incentive for democratic reform.
Gordon Gray is a professor of practice at Penn State’s School of International Affairs. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. He was a career Foreign Service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring and as deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @AmbGordonGray.